Authorities take 29 girls from home; facility official says civil rights violated
The Baton Rouge Advocate/AP
ARCADIA -- State and local authorities cut locked gates and removed 29 students Tuesday from the New Bethany Home for Girls to look into allegations of abuse, but a spokesman at the facility for troubled children called it an illegal raid.
"We feel this is a gross violation of civil rights here," said Bob Sensat, a spokesman and member of the home's board.
The Department of Health and Human Resources obtained a court order to search the complex and interview the girls after receiving complaints from a runaway, said Lucky Raley, chief criminal investigator for the Bienville Parish sheriff.
Gwen Stewart, DHHR spokeswoman in Baton Rouge, said the department investigates claims of child abuse.
"If the evidence is strong enough, we take custody of the child. If there is not enough evidence to seek or obtain a court order, our hands are tied," she said.
Authorities said the girls would be taken to temporary housing with the Minden office of the Child Protection Service, DHHR and the Johnny Graves Youth Center in Shreveport.
All 52 girls, ages 12-17, were given the option of leaving the school. But about two dozen remained, an official said.
The students who left said they were going home.
"Yes, praise God! I'm going home, finally," one girl said as tears streamed down her face.
Some girls who chose to remain at the school chastised the departing students from inside the school's fenced yard. "We are staying here with the Lord," one said.
The facility, surrounded by a 6-foot-high chain link fence topped with barbed wire, is 3.5 miles south of Arcadia.
DHHR officials, two state troopers and five deputies arrived at the school to remove the girls.
"They said come on in, but you're going to have to cut the lock to get in. So we did," said Raley.
The Rev. Mack W. Ford, pastor and director of the home, was in South Carolina, where a boys' home had closed recently, Sensat said.
"It was quite a scene," Sensat said. "We didn't resist them. We wouldn't stand in contempt of court."
Sensat said the "raid" was a violation of constitutional rights because of the separation of church and state. He said that since the home receives no state or federal funding, the state had no right to intervene.
Sensat said the allegations of abuse are false.
"We feel it is not over," Sensat said. "Even if they (DHHR officials) don't come back, it is not over."
The home's attorneys from the Christian Law Association were expected to arrive today, he said.
"The home will pursue legal charges to make sure we are free from future harrassment," Sensat said. "They violated our constitutional rights, and these wrongs will be made right.
"The state has no right to dictate to the church how to carry on its ministry when we do not have any proven abuse cases. They came in merely on assumption," he said.
Ford founded the Arcadia institution in 1971. There were a number of complaints about its operation in 1979. Attempts by DHHR to tour the facility met with resistance from Ford.
DHHR tried to close the school in 1980 for refusing to allow an inspection and licensing, but a district judge ruled the state lacked such authority.
Sheriff Aarvis Whitman calls the home a prison, and has refused to send back runaways.
Robert Stewart, the juvenile officer for the sheriff, said about 30 girls flee from the home every year.
One girl said she received 20 "licks" with a paddle for having rock music tapes and for cutting her bangs.
Others girls have said they were hit for talking about boys, popular songs, television or news.
A similar fundamentalist residence, the Bethel Home in Lucedale, Miss., was shut down Friday and its proprietor, the Rev. Herman Fountain, was arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer and inciting a riot.